Travel Writing Highlight: George Borrow

wandsworthBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Here’s a pithy note on a guy who’s maybe not as well known as he should be: George Borrow, born in 1803. (The Gutenberg Project offers a picture of his birth home.) These words are from Thomas Swick, whose blog observed Borrow’s birthday not long ago:

Wild Wales is the account of a trip he took in the summer of 1854 with his wife and stepdaughter. He of course had learned Welsh, and read the national poets in the original, and rambling around the place…he talked to everybody, an antecedent of Paul Theroux who once used the verb “buttonhole” to describe the travel writer’s modus operandi.

Thomas Swick, by the way, is former travel editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World. He’s lived in Washington, D.C., France, Alsace, London, Poland, and Greece, and he’s a very funny guy. We know this because of his list of “Seventy Ways Travel Magazines Address the Economic Crisis” at WorldHum. In a depleted publishing arena, Swick imagines such articles as “The 12 Best City Parks to Sleep In” and “Forget Exotic Places – Visit Exotic Dancers” and “Two Places to See Before You Die.”

But we were talking about George Borrow who, as a young Englishman, began his travel career by walking around in France and Germany. Later, via other means of transportation, he went to Portugal, Russia, Morocco and Spain. He was an incomparable linguist, speaking many tongues and translating, for instance, the works of Alexander Pushkin from the Russian.

As a Protestant, a proselytizer, and a demonizer of the Pope, Borrow was thought by some to be a fanatic. It’s true he did most of his wider traveling under the aegis of the British and Foreign Bible Society. But he also knew how to have a good time. He liked his Burgundy wine, saying, “It puts fire into your veins,” and he was known to be a practical joker, though the example we unearthed is too complicated to go into here. Borrow was a gentleman and a scholar, but not as well socialized as some. He tended to be blunt and tactless in the name of resisting baloney, but he never cussed. There may not have been a Polar Bear Club back then, but when Borrow was 70, he’d still plunge into an iced-over pond.

In Borrow’s day, his powers of description were recognized as second to none. He not only loved Wales and the Welsh, which was a lowbrow taste, like admitting that you loved hillbillies, but specialized in the despised nomads of Europe and the British Isles, the Gypsies. Indeed a contemporary detractor said Gypsies were “nine-tenths of his stock in trade.”

It was all very well for a British subject to learn Greek or translate Russian, but this oddball took things too far, for heaven’s sake. Oh yes, he was looked down on for hanging out with the riff-raff. Four of his published books are about Gypsies, starting with The Zincali: The Gypsies of Spain. Then a pair of volumes called Lavengro and Romany Rye were published in the mid-1800s, about Borrow’s travels with the Gypsies. Even today, scholars are unable to agree on their fact/fiction ratio. But there’s no doubt he knew the language; Romano Lavo-Lil is a dictionary of Romany terms. The photo on this page was taken in Wandsworth, near London, one of the places where Borrow visited the Gypsies long ago.

As a tourist on foreign soil, Borrow was most impressed by St. Petersburg, writing:

Notwithstanding I have previously heard and read much of the beauty and magnificence of the Russian capital……There can be no doubt that it is the finest City in Europe, being pre-eminent for the grandeur of its public edifices and the length and regularity of its streets.

A page at Peter Greenberg’s comprehensive travel website gives you a pretty good idea of why visitors are so impressed with the city. It was put together by Karen Elowitt, who collected tips from savvy locals who recommended the best places to visit. Greenberg is a multi-media personality who has served as travel correspondent for Good Morning America and travel editor for Today.

And what of The Third Tower Up From the Road? You’ll find St. Petersburg in Kevin’s book, for sure. He checked out the Hermitage and Dvortsovaya Place and the Nevsky Prospekt, and enjoyed the city very much. But we’re waiting for his report on traveling with the Gypsies.

photo courtesy of Ewan-M, used under this Creative Commons license

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